Friday, May 30, 2008

The Noble Savage

Thanks the Andy for the head-up!

A tribe of natives who have never met the modern world have been discovered in the Brazilian jungle.

This reminded me of the concept of the Noble Savage - first suggested by French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

The concept of the noble savage was inspired by European colonists' discovery of indigenous peoples in the Americas, Africa, and (later) Oceania. It captures the belief that humans in their natural state are selfless, peaceable, and untroubled, and that blights such as greed, anxiety, and violence are the products of civilization. In 1755 Rousseau wrote:

So many authors have hastily concluded that man is naturally cruel, and requires a regular system of police to be reclaimed; whereas nothing can be more gentle than him in his primitive state, when placed by nature at an equal distance from the stupidity of brutes and the pernicious good sense of civilized man. . . .

The more we reflect on this state, the more convinced we shall be that it was the least subject of any to revolutions, the best for man, and that nothing could have drawn him out of it but some fatal accident, which, for the public good, should never have happened. The example of the savages, most of whom have been found in this condition, seems to confirm that mankind was formed ever to remain in it, that this condition is the real youth of the world, and that all ulterior improvements have been so many steps, in appearance towards the perfection of individuals, but in fact towards the decrepitness of the species.

This was in stark contrast to the opposing view point held by Thomas Hobbes.

Hereby it is manifest, that during the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war; and such a war as is of every man against every man. . . .

In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

Hobbes believed that people could escape this hellish existence only by surrendering their autonomy to a sovereign person or assembly. He called it a leviathan, the Hebrew word for a monstrous sea creature subdued by Yahweh at the dawn of creation.

A most interesting theory. Are our painted friends happy playing like children in the Garden of Eden, or if they knew about our lives, would they want education, health, and the other things commonly associated with civilisation? - war, famine, smallpox, STD's, excessive wealth? Are they really Noble Savages, or just Man without his full potential realised? Terry Pratchett said it rather well in one of his books.....

I didn't know I was downtrodden until you told me I was!

Is ignorance bliss? Hmmmmm........


Alexander said...

Excellent post, mate.

My view (and from experiences in travel) is that (like most things) the ideal probably lies somewhere in the middle of both extremes.

But we humans don't 'do' Moderation.

Go to one extreme, and you get the worst out of people. Go to the other extreme, and it can bring out the worst in people. Interesting.

I'll leave you with Martin Sheen's narration from the opening scenes of Apocalypse Now, and see if it strikes a chord with you too.

"I'm here a week now. I'm waiting for a mission.Getting softer.Every minute I stay in this room, I get weaker. And every minute Charlie squats in the bush,he gets stronger.Each time I looked around,the walls moved in a little tighter"

The Scene

I've always loved these aspects of the movie, and the root of its original form in Conrad's Hearts of Darkness, examining this meeting of savagery and civilization and the soul searching that then goes on afterwards.

There is also the risk that a bit too 'much' of the industrial system of civilization can make people cold, and systematically barbaric against themselves and others even if they don't consciously realize it is happening.


Martin said...

Compasionate capitalism, or the European dream, not the shafting, everyman for himself attitude of the American Dream.

We can but hope, and keep trying!

Martin said...

PS. I love Apocalypse Now too!

Boy, I would love to have been on that shoot, nightmare it was too! lol